Sunday, December 11, 2011
Some artists suffer for their art. Lars van Trier makes you suffer.
Especially if you stayed awake through your high school science class. The one where you learned about the Roche limit. You remember ...
"The Roche limit is the distance within which a celestial body, held together only by its own gravity, will disintegrate due to a second celestial body's tidal forces exceeding the first body's gravitational self-attraction."
Lars von Trier, evidently, never heard of the Roche limit. In his latest movie, Earth falls into a giant rogue planet like a cream egg. A perfectly spherical cream egg. Earth doesn't blow up until it actually hits the rogue planet.
The name of the rogue planet? Melancholia.
Imagine the naming committee who came up with that one. The list would read like Depressonia, Downerus, Planet Bummer, Sadurn, Melancholia ... Yeah! Melancholia! Let's go with that one! It has a nice ring to it.
To make sure no element of suspense intrudes in his artistic vision, Lars von Triers shows Earth doing its giant cosmic SPLAT into Melancholia in the first five minutes of the movie.
For the rest of the movie, Kirsten Dunst is sad -- perhaps because they pulled the plug on "Spiderman 4."
I kid. She's not sad. She's depressed -- but that's just my diagnosis. Nobody actually USES the word "depressed" or "depression" in the movie. Or has ever heard of Zoloft or Xanax, for that matter.
Most of the, uh, action, takes place in a giant baronial castle owned by Kiefer Sutherland. Kirsten marries the Nordic vampire from "True Blood," then spends the rest of the movie moping. An hour or so later, the rogue planet appears.
We learn this indirectly. The giant baronial castle, evidently, doesn't have any radios or TVs. Internet access, yeah. But spotty.
Melancholia shows up. Then takes its own sweet time before destroying the Earth. It gets closer! It moves away! It gets closer again! Kirsten mopes, whips her horse, and refuses to take a bath.
By the time Metaphoria finally does destroy the Earth, I'm like those guys from Tool -- I'm praying for tidal waves, rooting for destruction. Dear God, let this movie END. It finally does.
All life is destroyed. You think that's something?
Wait'll you see the sequel.
Sunday, November 6, 2011
Thursday, October 20, 2011
Wednesday, October 5, 2011
First, let's give credit where credit is due. Steve Jobs? If you're up there in cyberheaven, sitting on a cloud in the Cloud someplace, let me say "thank you." From the heart.
For me, Apple computers created a personal revolution. Not quite so dramatic as the "Why 1984 won't be like 1984" commercial. But pretty dramatic. I was trapped in a shitty job. First-gen Apple computers got me out of that trap.
I learned on Apple Computers, courtesy the Sarasota Vo-Tech and Ringling College. I wound up teaching Pagemaker at a Vo-Tech class in 1989. For my Apple students, the class was a breeze. For my Windows students, it was a heaping helping of suck. I fumbled and struggled with the early Windows operating system. The interface looked like the Apple GUI. But that was lipstick on a pig. Windows was counterintuitive, kludgy, user-hateful. I couldn't wrap my mind around it, let alone teach people how to use a Windows application. My Windows students wound up hating me.
Apple taught me and nurtured me. Windows punished me. I'm a creative, right-brain dude. If anybody's a Mac person, it's me. My soul takes a bite outta the Apple. God bless the Apple. God bless the Mac. God bless Steven Jobs.
Now that I've got that out of the way, allow me to bash Steve Jobs.
In The Master Switch, Tim Wu wondered about Jobs' intentions. As Wu said in an interview --
What worries you about Apple?
As I discuss in the book, Steve Jobs has the charisma, vision and instincts of every great information emperor. The man who helped create the personal computer 40 years ago is probably the leading candidate to help exterminate it. His vision has an undeniable appeal, but he wants too much control.
Jobs was a great designer (or design evangelist, or whatever you want to call him). I'm all for elegant design. Jobs made good products, no question. But he made good products for an elite market. He priced them outside of the range of normal slobs. At the same time, he took the original PC revolution (which was generative) and replaced it with a top-down paradigm.
Bill Gates may look like a nerd; Jobs may have looked like a hippy. But Gates was the true hippy. His operating system -- as shitty as it was -- was open, like Woodstock or Ken Kesey's bus. Open source, in other words. Gates let other people write to his code. He let a thousand flowers bloom. Jobs didn't. As a result, there were a host of "PCs" -- cobbled together by HP, Dell, IBM, and scads of other companies. But Apple made the only "Apple."
Back in the 1990s, open source seemed to win the day. But -- after his celebrated return to Apple in 1997 -- Jobs courted educators, artists, designers and all the other cool kids. He gave Apple cachet. He made it cool. Apple came back -- from the serious ass-whipping that Windows had given it.
Jobs' cool company kicked the Man in the nuts. Then Jobs turned into the Man. He swiftly killed the open source paradigm. Yeah, he invented cool stuff. But the stuff was always HIS stuff. Boxes you couldn't open without permission.
The iPod and iPhone are what Jonathan Zittrain calls "tethered appliances." Cool design, yeah-- in the sense that a Herman Miller chair is cool design. There's a hefty price tag. It's cool design for the elite. Developers can design "apps" -- but Apple functions as the gatekeeper. The paradigm is hardly open source.
So, as the Internet moves from the wire to the cloud, it loses its openness. The range was open. Now it's strung with barbed wire. Really cool, elegantly designed, user-friendly (and very expensive) barbed wire. But barbed wire, nonetheless. For all his hippy-dippy righteousness, Jobs strung that wire. He turned the open range of the Internet into a system of top-down control.
Far be it from me to bash the dead. Give credit where credit was due. Steve Jobs was a visionary.
I'm not sure I like his vision.
Tim Wu on Steve Jobs
Thursday, September 29, 2011
Tuesday, September 27, 2011
"Can you feel the action?
Can you feel the wave action? The pull?
... at the beach as the water recedes... as it suctions away from shore like a great inhalation; before the biblical wave strikes...
... that's what I feel now... in every temporary atom of every fleeting cell composing this wave- form mirage I tendentiously 'observe' into this familiar particle- based heap...
(... a good barometer in times past... rather like Sky sensing the storm and retreating to the closet, tout de suite...)
Saturday, September 17, 2011
Thursday, September 15, 2011
Friday, September 9, 2011
Director Steven Soderbergh's Contagion is a catchy movie. Infectious, even. OK, I'll stop.
It's a movie about a plague – on the surface. The word alone is terrifying. Plague! It pushes our fear buttons. Contagion doesn't. "Don't Fear the Reaper" never plays. It’s not The Stand. It’s not even Outbreak. The movie is cerebral, which probably equals box-office death.
Soderbergh obviously made a decision: “The world doesn’t need another formulaic ‘Agggggh! It’s the plague!’ Hollywood movie. I’m not going to make that movie. It's been done.”
The basic plot?
Short version: A killer disease appears out of nowhere and spreads. More and more people start dying. Nobody knows what to do at first. People in labcoats slowly figure it out, and deal with it.
Long version: Beth (Gwyneth Patrow) takes a trip to Hong Kong, eats some bad pork, gets sick, comes back to the USA and drops dead. Her husband (Matt Damon) is devastated – and feels worse when his son dies the same way. Then people around the planet start dying. Medical researchers scramble to figure out what’s killing them — hundreds die before they find out it’s a virus. They try to keep it quiet, but can’t. It's a full-blown epidemic -- and the word is out. Various health organizations fight to isolate the virus and create a vaccine while simultaneously dealing with global panic. Millions die before they do.
Soderbergh takes a low-key approach to this juicy material — and avoids Hollywood clichés like the plague. (Sorry.) He approaches the disease's spread like he’s making a documentary on an epidemic that actually happened. Soderbergh's movie is scientifically literate — with a damn smart screenplay by Scott Z. Burns, built on solid medical logic, in the Michael Crichton tradition. Our understanding unfolds, based on the detective work of the movie's doctors and medical generalissimos. The epidemiology (and jargon behind the medical detective work) seems plausible.
As a sidenote, this kind of exposition is a bitch to do without boring the audience into a coma. Soderbergh, Burns and the actors pull it off. The characters start out in the dark. They slowly find out what's going on. We find out at the same time.
We discover that ...
The plague is spread by casual contact. Touch can spread it. It lingers on doorknobs. After an initial outbreak, it spreads geometrically. Two victims become 4, 16…etc. It acts fast. Symptoms don’t present for the first few hours. Then you get sick. It looks like a bad cold or the flu, at first. Then you die.
Soderbergh presents all this with cold, Vulcan logic. (The people in the movie aren't cold; but the director refuses to push emotional panic buttons.) Soderberg's logic defies expectations -- and might piss a lot of people off who expected a different movie.
There are plenty of movies this ain't. It’s not a zombie movie without the zombies. It's not a horror movie. It’s not an action movie. It’s not a suspense movie.
The story framework is a medical detective story. Inside that framework, Soderbergh’s human drama is character-based. The drama revolves around the decisions the characters must make, the pain they feel, and the bad shit they force themselves to face. He create a movie about endurance, mental toughness and problem solving. It's a study of grace under pressure.
The disease is bad, not Biblical. The 1918 flu epidemic killed 1% of the planet’s population. This disease is fatal to 12% of the population. That’s pretty bad. Even so, most people are immune.
While the disease is bad, the plague of panic it spawns is worse. (As it says on the posters, "Nothing Spreads Like Fear.") Soderbergh, again, shows us a plausible response on the part of various government entities (the Center for Disease Control, the World Health Organization, etc.) and the public. Cops and nurses go on strike. Our country's states close their borders to other states. There's looting. To make matters worse, there’s conspiracy theory.
Jude Law plays the human vector for this virus of the mind -- a pissant blogger who rants and rattles cages. Thanks to a mix of fearless and greedy motives – his character accuses the government of a hiding both a cover-up and a secret cure; he advises his on-line followers not to take the vaccine the CDC finally develops — and take a worthless homeopathic medicine instead. But he only does limited damage.
Despite the promise of the poster, Soderbergh's central characters don't panic. They keep it together. They get the job done.
Damon puts in an excellent performance as a regular guy whose wife — Paltrow's character — just dies at the start of the movie for no reason that makes sense. Laurence Fishburne is the courageous — if coldly calculating — head of the CDC. (But he’s not so noble that he won’t slip the woman he loves a tip to get out of Atlanta as fast as she can.) Kate Winslet plays another courageous medical detective who puts herself at risk to trace the history of the disease.
Thanks to these quiet heroes, the CDC ultimately creates a vaccine. In a standard Hollywood movie following the Blake Snyder beat-sheet, this would turn out to be a false hope. (Sigourney Weaver thinks she killed the Alien — but she didn't!) People would seem cured — then start dying. There’d be a last minute rush to find a real cure. I expected that ...
I also expected rioters getting shot; the conspiracy theorist taking a bullet to the head; more gore; more death. I didn't get it. Soderbergh dishes out some gross stuff, yeah, a sawed-off skull here, a dead kid there — but that's not the movie's focus. It's not about bad shit. It's about people dealing with bad shit. But it could just as easily be Katrina or the tsunami that hit Japan. The disease is bad — but not Book of Revelations bad.
Lots of people die, but TV, Internet, phone service and electricity don't die. Civilization frays, but doesn’t break down. Ultimately, life goes on. Soderbergh could've rattled our cage with the possibility that it wouldn't. It could've been much more lurid — and dramatic.
But it's not the movie he wanted to make. The movie he made is great. Forget the movie you expected, and enjoy it.
It grows on you.
Saturday, September 3, 2011
Thursday, September 1, 2011
OK, here's a cute little tidbit from our old pal Seneca, that wacky stoic philosopher from ancient Rome. Let's call it "the Seneca Effect." Basically, stuff falls apart a lot faster than it gets built. I.e.: Rome wasn't built in a day. But it took about a day to sack it. But let's quote the man himself ...
"It would be some consolation for the feebleness of our selves and our works if all things should perish as slowly as they come into being; but as it is, increases are of sluggish growth, but the way to ruin is rapid."
Lucius Anneaus Seneca, Letters to Lucilius, n. 91
The money quote from the Oil Drum blog:
"... Could it be that the Seneca cliff is what we are facing, right now? If that is the case, then we are in trouble. With oil production peaking or set to peak soon, it is hard to think that we are going to see a gentle downward slope of the economy. Rather, we may see a decline so fast that we can only call it "collapse." The symptoms are all there, but how to prove that it is what is really in store for us? It is not enough to quote a Roman philosopher who lived two thousand years ago. We need to understand what factors might lead us to fall much faster than we have been growing so far. For that, we need to make a model and see how the various elements of the economic system may interact with each other to generate collapse..."
And now here's something we hope you'll really like ...
Saturday, August 27, 2011
Another link from Mr. Anonymous ...
The crude truth
He suggests that ...
"Here is the salient point with the Horizon field; the seabed is entirely fractured below. There is nothing - no conceptual barrier or vessel - to contain the natural ebbing and flowing of fluids, now after we've rattled the ocean bottom with our explosions; where pressure, primary flow patterns shift and change with even the subtlest tectonic movements."
Friday, August 26, 2011
Thursday, August 25, 2011
Tuesday, August 23, 2011
The rise of industrialization is largely thanks to cheap fossil fuel. As I've said, it's as if our civilization discovered massive caves filled with batteries -- and for the next 200 years built an infrastructure plugging into that "free" energy.
To quote the pessimistic Mr. Anonymous ...
"The age of fossil fuel powered a meteoric rise in consumption, invention for consumption, and consumption for consumption's sake. Literally all aspects of our lives are contingent on the availability of inexpensive, concentrated, stable and readily transportable energy that it provides.
Our American mythology dictates that there are no practical limits to growth or consumption. However, confirmed by independent geologists, beginning with King Hubbert decades past, the life of an oil field has predictable patterns.
Further, time lines are finite. Touted technical 'innovations' (horizontal drilling, multiple drill heads, 'pumping') have only extracted reserves faster, often exhausting reservoir pressures, destabilizing strata, and leaving more oil trapped in the ground.
Mexico's aging jewel, Cantrell, is dying - with Mexico an importer in 2 years. (In '08 the US imported 11% of its supply from Mexico.)
The North Sea is spent. The UK has literally run out of national assets.
Saudi production figures have proven themselves over time a flexible fiction.
The House of Saud and Aramco are doing silly, desperate things at Khurais and South Ghawar and talk of leaving reserves in the ground for future princely generations.
As we're about to divine, without inexpensive, concentrated, stable and readily transportable energy, everything changes.